Last week, the Christian Science Monitor published a brief story about the fading musical art form of the Nubians known as the zar. The correspondent for the Monitor, Laura Kasinov, witnessed a zar performance at a small arts studio in Cairo and was impressed.

She indicated that the music originates in Upper Egypt, on the border with Sudan, but she unfortunately failed to identify the zar as an indigenous art form of the Nubian people. In any case, she was clearly “entranced by the energy and rhythms of a centuries-old musical tradition…” The audience loved the big, dangling gold nose rings and ear rings of Madiha, the star performer.

Ms. Kasinov writes that the music was used traditionally as a healing ritual, and was the only music in Egypt in which women performed the major roles. The performances served to heal women, give them freedom from their stresses, and release them from anxieties imposed by the social strictures of their society. The music, she suggests, sounds African, but she writes that it was threatened by religious conservatives in Egypt who felt the zar tradition was un-Islamic.

Ahmed al-Maghraby, who owns a public stage where zar is performed, told the reporter that the Egyptian people initially opposed the public performances—the media had portrayed zar as an exorcism ritual in which the practitioners commune with devils. The contemporary performances in Cairo have helped dispel these images, he feels. “As soon as Egyptians come to see zar, they are like, ‘Oh my God, it’s beautiful,’” he said. He is dedicated to preserving traditional Egyptian music.

Madiha said that her mother was a zar performer too and that she learned her art from her. But despite the “very ancient history” of the musical form, she indicates that no one now is learning to perform it.

John G. Kennedy, an anthropologist, wrote a fascinating analysis of the zar ceremony in 1967, which he updated for a book in 1978. It is worth examining them for more information. In a head note in the 1978 account, he describes zar as not at all an ancient art form. Instead, it appears to have originated out of the social stresses in Nubian society caused by the construction of the first Aswan dam, which was completed in 1902. He describes zar as a ceremony rather than a musical art form.

He argues that the Nubians hold their zar ceremonies as a way of coping with evil spirits that they believe cause their illnesses. In that way, the conservative Islamic officials mentioned in the news account were correct. The Nubians employ zar healing only as a last resort, after having tried other forms of charms, exorcisms, native healers, herbs, physical manipulations, and perhaps even western doctors. (This description will use the present verb tense, to conform with Kennedy’s research articles, though if the news report is correct and the zar is rapidly disappearing, perhaps the past tense should soon be used.)

While a person who is angry, aggressive, or violent will more likely be afflicted by the demons that cause illnesses, the Nubians blame the spirits and not the individuals for their erratic behaviors. The zar ceremony itself is normally held for seven consecutive days—again, this is Kennedy’s observation from the 1960s—though it may be restricted in some circumstances. Men do not normally attend ceremonies for women and vice versa.

The ceremonies are held in a large room, with the windows closed to raise the temperature. That provokes the demons to jump from the body. Participants use a lot of incense as part of the ceremony. Music and dancing are important aspects of the performance, since they have significant effects on the spirits. If the sheikh who performs the ceremony addresses a song to a particular spirit which is closely associated with someone in the room, that individual will begin to shake, dance, and come to the central area of the room, finally to fall into trembling exhaustion.

Often the relatives of the individual who is ill must give temporary or permanent gifts to the spirit to tempt it to leave the prostrate person. A special song brings the person back to consciousness. The performing sheikh often goes into possession states himself (or herself), during which he may have voluble debates with the spirits or perform with them. The ceremonies also frequently include fortune telling and the prescription of cures. They conclude with animal sacrifices and a final feast.

Although many of the participants in the zar ceremonies suffer from neuroses and anxieties, in their own eyes they attend as participants rather than patients. The Nubians recognize that depressions are the most frequently treated illnesses. Normally, people with really severe disorders are excluded, but sometimes even the severely impaired will attend a zar and make a remarkable recovery. Factors which prompt healing during the ceremony include the strong faith of the participants, the support from the group, and the intensity of the experience.

Symbolism also plays a major role in stimulating healing. The patient is dressed joyfully, as if in a wedding and smeared with dyes. The music and dancing have joyous associations, while incense and perfumes help symbolize purification. People consume potions, wear white colored clothing, and perform ritual cleansing. They may also wear other colors such as green and gold, which represent protection from harm as well as wealth and goodness. Numbers such as seven—the length of the zar—have symbolic meanings as well. All of these symbols increase the intensity of commitment to the healing process.

The context of the ceremony is basically non-religious, and the patient acts out the purification rituals in a manner which might be considered morally undesirable and perhaps anti-social outside the ceremonial setting. However, Kennedy argues, the Nubians believe the evil demons that cause illnesses are attracted to people who have guilt feelings about their inability to always fulfill their strongly peaceful, nonviolent, non-aggressive values. Thus, performances of the zar ceremonies are (or perhaps were) an essential element in preserving their culture of peacefulness. If the news story is accurate, zar is being transformed from an essential social service in Nubian society into an exotic musical art performed in Cairo.